Chapter One

It was night.

Night can be many things, depending on where you come from. It can be evil and dark or quiet and peaceful or alive or even just a time for rest. In my world, night is regarded as a time for secrets. If you have a secret to tell, tell it at night. If you have a secret mission, carry it out at night. But I digress.

It was night. And a particularly secretive one, too.

My eyes looked toward our target: the Black Castle. Not that it was normally black. It used to be painted white and gold, with beautiful murals on every wall. The castle itself was a beautiful thing in those days. But all good things must come to an end. I suppose the castle takes after its Queen. The previous Queen was golden and beautiful, and the castle was too. Then in came the new Queen, black and unpleasant. The castle followed suit.

My companion gave me a look: Follow me. I did. Our footsteps were the kind used to sneaking about, the kind that hardly made a sound, even on gravel intended to make them crunch. We approached the gate. The guards, staring straight ahead with night-blind eyes, never knew a thing, not even as I whispered to the lock and it came undone with a soft click.

We were in the castle. Good.

Our light paws danced along the thick red carpet. We moved down the hall faster than shadows escaping the dawn. Had we slowed a bit, I might have taken notice of the strange lack of guards before the Queen's door. The Black Snake was many things, but she was not careless. Nevertheless, we did not slow, we did not pause, and we did not let the door get in the way. Jaxx drew his swords and easily sliced the lock in two, and I stepped into the Queen's room.

It was eerily quiet. Darkness filled the room like water, and the large bay window had its curtains drawn tight, making it hard even for my cat's eyes to see. The whole thing fell into place; it had been too easy, much too easy. This thought came into my head just as I heard the slither of scales over the silken sheets.

"Hello, little bird…"

The voice filled the room, echoing though it was but the softest whisper, winding its way into my chest and gripping my heart with a cold, coiled fear, even if just for a moment.

"Tsen," I said, with much more confidence than I felt. In the back of my mind, I wondered where Jaxx was. Captured? Gone? Who knew?

"Why have you come, little bird? Do you seek to kill the predator, not knowing that you are the prey? No more tricks, Jaybird. Dance with death if you dare. Come to me—or are you afraid?"

I searched the room for the owner of that poisoned, whispering tongue, but could find no one. Fear rose in my throat and I choked it down. I readied an Orb, slightly comforted by its golden glow as it sprouted from my palm. That glow lit the room for a moment, just a precious moment, and it flashed on black scales, hiding in the dark.

I turned toward Tsen, whom I had now located, and threw the orb with all my strength. It hit the end of her tail as she tried to flash out of sight and exploded, scorching her armored scales and blowing a small hole in the wall. Shouts broke out.

It was time for me to leave. Where was Jaxx?

"Here!" shouted Jaxx's voice from the bay window. A flash of silver; the glass exploded inwards, revealing a white, three-tailed fox standing on the windowsill, a katana in each paw. "Jaybird, over here!"

As I ran to the window, I tossed a parting gift in Tsen's general direction. A white Orb flew briefly through the air before hitting the wall and evaporating into a cloud of stinging white smoke. I paused on the windowsill to hear her reaction.

"AUGHHHH! GUARDS! CATCH THEM! CATCH THEM!"

Convinced I had made an impression, I made a swift sweeping bow to the screeching white cloud of smoke, and jumped, noiselessly, out the window and into the air.